This review of Douglaston Community Theatre's production of James Yaffe's "Cliffhanger" at Zion Episcopal Church was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by James Yaffe
Directed by Matt Stashin
Douglaston Community Theatre
Zion Episcopal Church
243-01 Northern Boulevard
Douglaston, New York 11363
Are philosophical concepts of right and wrong absolute? Are lying and killing unethical and morally wrong in all circumstances, or are they sometimes justified? Are all moral principles relative to the particulars of a given case? Should we consider the greater good when making ethical decisions? Is it even possible to judge someone else's ethical decisions if we were not brought up in their time, culture and circumstances? These and many other issues are intelligently raised and coherently addressed in Cliffhanger, James Yaffe's extremely well-written play that takes place in the home of Prof. Henry Lowenthal, and his wife Polly.
Prof. Lowenthal has been teaching philosophy at Mesa Grande College in a small town in the Rockies for decades and until two years ago, he was head of the Philosophy Department. He is 65 years old and will soon face mandatory retirement unless recommended for appointment to the VanVoorhees Trust, a teaching position that will allow him to escape any forced retirement. The problem is that recently he has been butting heads with Edith Wilshire, the Philosophy Department Chair, who wants to put her own mark on the department by bringing in those who believe that right and wrong are relative concepts and that even Hitler may be looked upon in a more favorable light once the proper amount of time has passed. When visiting Prof. Lowenthal in his home to tell him of her decision, she relishes how her forcing him out will hurt him and explicitly states she is seeking revenge for his not hiring her after she completed her internship. She is infuriating and refuses to listen to reason. In a fit of anger, Henry strikes Edith on the head with a bust of Socrates. Polly, who has worked for ten years as a Nurse Aide in a mental hospital, takes her pulse and declares she is dead.
Interesting discussions ensue regarding what to do next. Prof. Henry Lowenthal realizes what he has done is absolutely wrong according to his own moral principles and is intent on calling the police to confess to his crime. Polly uses utilitarian ethics ("the greater good") to convince Henry not to call the police and to dispose of Edith Wilshire's body instead. She argues that what is done is done and that calling the police will only destroy their lives and deny his students the benefits of his guidance. She argues he fought back the only way he could against the "evil bitch" who was trying to destroy his life. Henry relents and throws Edith's body off a cliff near a cabin she owns.
Melvin McMullen, a very emotionally disturbed student, who is threatening to commit suicide if Prof. Lowenthal doesn't change his failing grade to a passing one, shows up and eventually claims to have witnessed Henry dispose of Edith's body. When faced with blackmail, a new ethical dilemma arises. Should Henry change the grade and hope Melvin keeps quiet, or should he and Polly just kill Melvin under the philosophical principle that if you are in for a penny, you might as well be in for a pound! The final character in the play is Dave DeVito, a police lieutenant, who used to be a student of Prof. Lowenthal. Lt. DeVito no longer believes in the higher principles of philosophy. All he believes in is the way things are!
There are many interesting plot twists and turns in Cliffhanger as well as a number of funny lines. Early in the play, Prof. Lowenthal offers his philosophical opinion that "every human being can gently be led to see reason," yet by the second act, his character states, "there is a point where reason doesn't work anymore and you need to give someone a swift kick in the balls." James Yaffe invites you to take this philosophical journey along with his characters and what you witness will give you plenty to talk about over dinner with your friends after the show.
Joseph Pagano was extremely impressive and believable in the role of Prof. Henry Lowenthal. Mr. Pagano brought depth and warmth to the character. In addition, he appeared to have a great rapport with Rosemary Kurtz, who played his wife Polly. They successfully portrayed themselves as an old married couple who were still very much in love. The conflicts each character faced were also evident. They were not only abstractly arguing over philosophical principles but also how each decision would directly affect themselves and their partner. Salvatore Casto succeeded in representing Melvin McMullen as a self-absorbed, selfish, narcissistic student. He didn't do the work required to pass his philosophy class because he was suffering from "emotional problems" arising from his dysfunctional relationship with his girlfriend, yet the egotistic little twit still had the nerve to ask his professor for a grade change, willing to go to almost any length to get it. Although the play was set in the early 1980s, students today generally have a feeling of entitlement which has made matters even worse. In today's college environment, the professor who actually gives students the grades they deserve will find themselves out of a job. Lorrie DePellegrini successfully portrayed Edith Wilshire as someone you would want to see dead. Her character is so fundamentally evil that you feel like repeatedly smashing her skull into the concrete with a brick to make certain she is really dead. Andy Wittman nailed the role of Dave DeVito, the Police Lieutenant, who was not quite as hard of hearing as he made himself out to be.
The Douglaston Community Theatre is the oldest community theatre in Queens County, having been founded in 1950. Cliffhanger has never been more successfully staged or better performed than it was here. This production was well-acted, extremely entertaining, and addressed many substantive issues. It is a smash hit and a must see! Tickets cost only $17.00 for adults and $15.00 for students and seniors. You are able to purchase reasonably priced concession items before the performance and during intermission. For more information, visit http://www.spotlightonstage.com/dct.htm